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Apple's iPhone Event: A Recap


Tim Cook, Apple's new CEO

I spent much of today hacking away--I have a cold--and writing a 4000 word analysis of yesterday's Apple iPhone 4S event. (It was called " The Morning After: An Analysis of the iPhone 4S Launch.")

I'm not going to publish it.

There's just too much to complain about and it feels like sour grapes even to me. It's hard to sit through some of these events, and reading through what I wrote, it's hard to read too. This event included a whopping 45 minutes of pat-themselves-on-the-back momentum baloney, for example, and some dubious statistics that should make even Apple fans feel dirty. But you know what? That's what Apple does. Complaining about it won't get me anywhere.

So instead of boring you with a lengthy tirade about everything that was wrong with this week's event, let me just recap the highlights. Apple is important, so I need to at least think about this stuff. But it's occurring to me that they've slipped up enough here that I should simply ignore most of it.


Apple's retail stores, Mac business, music business (iPod + iTunes), iPhone, iPad, and iOS are all doing very well, thank you very much. I find it semi-notable that no iPad sales numbers were discussed, but Apple may be in a quiet period because of pending quarterly results.  They also didn't discuss Mac App Store momentum, because there isn't any.

Two new mobile apps were revealed during this segment:

Cards. A laughably lame app that will make, print, and then send (via USPS no less) paper-based greeting cards.

Find My Friends. A fairly obvious take on the Find My iPhone app that finds not your iPhone but rather those of friends and family who are sharing their locations with you.

Apple also announced some ship dates for previously-announced (and previously thoroughly discussed) products. Its iCloud service will launch publicly October 12, with the $25 a year iTunes Match service hitting in "late October." The iOS 5 update, free for users of modern iOS devices, ships October 12 as well.


Apple has held an iPod event every September for several years now, but this year it didn't happen because Apple did not rev its iPod hardware at all for the first time ever. The iPod classic and shuffle were largely ignored, but the shuffle is still being sold for $50. One gets the feeling Apple is embarrassed by the classic.

Last year's iPod nano carries on into 2011 with no physical changes at all. Instead, we get a handful of small software changes, including an even simpler/dumber UI with huge onscreen buttons, an improved Fitness app, and, inexplicably, a collection of 16 new clock faces for those goons who like to wear the nano as a watch. Shame on every single one of you.

The nano comes in seven colors and is available today in 8 GB ($130, down $20) and 16 GB ($150, down $30) variants.

The iPod touch is a phenomenon, of course, and Apple's best-selling iPod. Like the nano, it carries over into 2011 with no physical changes, and despite the A5 update to the iPhone 4S (see below), it also uses last year's guts too. It comes with iOS 5, of course, and can utilize iCloud, and it seems like Apple feels those software and services pieces alone make for a decent upgrade. (Forgetting that the identical 2010 models get those updates for free too.) Well, there is one change: You can get the iPod touch in white this year. Hooray.

Unlike the nano, only the cheapest iPod touch gets a price cut: The 8 GB model falls to $200, from $230. The 32 GB ($300) and 64 GB ($400) versions retain the previous prices. The "new" iPod touch debuts October 12.

iPhone 4S

It took Apple almost a full hour to get to the iPhone 4S, and in my opinion, this warmed over retread of the company's buggiest-ever iPhone wasn't worth the wait.The iPhone 4S is identical, physically, to its predecessor, which should just thrill potential upgraders. It features the same exact display as in mid-2010. The same glass. The same antenna. Inside, however, it is "all new," and in fact shares many components with the iPad 2, including the dual-core A5 CPU with dual-core graphics. The battery life numbers look great. And Apple is touting a new system whereby the 4S can intelligently switch between the two antennas to transmit and receive a data, which sounds like a software fix to the iPhone's broken antenna issue to me. Schiller said it's "never been done in a phone before." I'm guessing that's because it was never needed before.

The iPhone 4S doesn't support true 4G or LTE, like leading edge Android devices. But it supports HSDPA, which is a hokey GSM/AT&T way of improving bandwidth on 3G networks until LTE is ready. Or as AT&T calls it, "4G." Schiller tried to slyly claim these speeds were as good as real 4G.

With the iPhone 4, Apple had to make two versions, one that runs on GSM (AT&T, internationally) and one for CDMA (Verizon). With the iPhone 4S, this has been simplified to a single version, or what Apple and others call a "world phone." So it includes both GSM and CDMA chips and can roam internationally even if you're a Verizon customer.

The iPhone 4S does get one major upgrade, in my book, though this really only puts the device on par with other leading edge smart phones, including various Android and Windows Phone 7.5 handsets. That is, it features an 8 megapixel (3264 x 2448) camera with excellent optics, faster performance, and better low light performance. This all seems solid to me.

Apple also bumped up the video recording from 720p in the iPhone 4 to 1080p in the 4S. This seems like overkill to me, but video image stabilization and noise reduction (both built in) should help. And it brought AirPlay Mirroring to the 4S, giving it the ability to mirror the device's display on an HDTV via an Apple TV or HDMI cable.

Finally, Apple showed off the fruits of a corporate purchase from almost two years ago: Its new voice command system, Siri. In fact, they spent a heck of a lot of time talking about Siri, which seeks to intelligently do what other voice command systems have been doing for many, many years. Whether this turns into a Newton-style Doonesbury skit remains to be seen, but the demos were interesting. Siri will be available in beta form in a handful of languages when the iPhone 4S ships.

And that happens October 14, but you can preoder one beginning October 7.  It costs $200 for a 16 GB version (+ two year contract) or $300 for 32 GB, and for the first time a 64 GB version ($400) is available as well. Black and white versions, as before. In the US, it's available on AT&T and Verizon, as before, and on Sprint.

(Apple will continue selling the 2010-era iPhone 4 as well, in an 8 GB configuration for $100, as well as the 2009-era 3GS for free, with a two-year contract.)

Final thoughts

There is an interesting moment at the end of the event, when Tim Cook comes back on stage and puts his hands together as if in prayer. And for that one shining moment, you think ... OK. He's going to save this thing. There's an all-new iPhone 5 too. There has to be.

But there isn't. And that, of course, was the problem with the whole iPhone event. The iPhone 4S is a solid, evolutionary update to the iPhone 4 internally, but it doesn't feature a new design, which isn't just a matter of aesthetics, but is rather an issue of necessity, given the known problems with the current form factor. But even for those people who willfully or otherwise ignore the very real issues with the iPhone 4 chassis, selling last year's device is just ... unApple. This company's fans look forward to these events, look forward to standing in line and getting the latest and greatest. And with the iPhone 4S, what they're getting is something solid, yes. But it's not magical, it's not special, and it's not different. And that's going to turn a lot of people off.

Apple just handed both Android and Windows Phone a beautiful gift, one that will keep giving for up to a year before the company is ready to ship an iPhone 5. It will be interesting to see if either camp does anything with this opportunity.

In the meantime, I have some iOS and iCloud reviews to write: Those are still very compelling products. But like most people, I'll be skipping out on the iPhone 4S and those "updated" iPods. They're all last year's news.

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